Algorithm-aided blood test could help locate cancer early

Patients have better odds in the fight against cancer if it’s caught early, but diagnosis often involves invasive biopsies that aren’t usually undertaken unless there’s already reason to suspect the presence of cancer. But soon it could be as simple as a routine blood test, thanks to a new computer program from UCLA researchers that can spot biomarkers in a patient’s blood sample and identify where in the body a tumor might be hiding.

The idea for a cancer-detecting blood test isn’t a new one, with research teams tackling the problem by searching for different biomarkers, such as the RNA profiles of platelets, elevated levels of a certain protein, or the telltale battle scars that tumors have left on white blood cells.

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The UCLA team’s new program, called CancerLocator, works in a similar fashion, but is searching for a different footprint. Cells express genes through a process called DNA methylation, but when cancer starts to take hold, this process is interrupted, with the disease silencing certain genes to give itself the best chance at surviving. Analyzing blood samples with their program, the UCLA team can spot the molecular patterns this interference creates, and by consulting a database of methylation profiles, it can identify the presence, type and location of a tumor.

“Non-invasive diagnosis of cancer is important, as it allows the early diagnosis of cancer, and the earlier the cancer is caught, the higher chance a patient has of beating the disease,” says Jasmine Zhou, co-lead author of the study. “We have developed a computer-driven test that can detect cancer, and also identify the type of…

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